The Dragons of Komodo and Rinca
I guess it’s a testament to Komodo’s underwater attractions that it has taken us almost two weeks to visit the world-famous dragons. But now, the time has come… for dragons, megapodes, cockatoos and more.
Known locally as ora, the “Komodo dragons” not only occur on Komodo, but also neighboring Rinca (pronounced reen-cha) and mainland Flores as well as the smaller islands of Gili Motang and Gili Dasami. They are believed to be a relict population of large reptiles that once roamed Indonesia and Australia. The survival of the giant lizard is credited to extreme isolation as well as the unique belief system of the native people of Komodo, who directly linked the survival of the dragons to the survival of the tribe.
Komodo island was, until recently, visited by public ferries, which made visiting the island relatively simple. These days, public ferries no longer stop at Komodo which means visitors must join an organized tour or charter their own boat. (How conveniently expensive!)
One reason it took us so long to visit was our frustration with unappealing cookie-cutter tours which seemed to place greater emphasis on snorkeling and island hopping than actually viewing the dragons. After much research and deliberation, we arranged for our own boat and set up an overnight tour to visit both Rinca and Komodo de-emphasizing snorkeling side trips and allowing us to spend more time viewing dragons. We also requested a 6:00 AM arrival at Komodo to allow us an early morning start for the extended four-hour hike from Loh Liang to Loh Sebita.
As with most two-day trips, because we opted to visit Rinca on our first day, we didn’t get to the island until around 10 AM. Midday heat is not great for dragon spotting, but Mother Nature gifted us with some lucky cooling cloud cover. Within a few minutes, we had spotted a very colorful juvenile daring a quick journey across the ground between trees. (Young dragons like to stick to the trees as they are a favorite snack of the bigger dragons.)
Finding dragons in the wild is tricky business and dragon sightings cannot really be guaranteed. One reason Rinca has become a popular alternative to Komodo is because of its famous (or perhaps notorious) camp kitchen. Although rangers claim not to feed the dragons, large numbers of the animals hang around the kitchen. (Rangers claim it’s due to the smell – yeah, right.)
However questionable camp kitchen practices might be, it is somewhat of a guilty pleasure to see a large number of the impressive beasts lying around mere feet from – well – your feet. The “kitchen Komodos” are used to visitors and don’t usually attempt to take a bite out of travelers, although during our picture session it became quite clear these are not pets. Keep your eyes peeled for quick movements because Komodo dragons don’t need to eat you whole. Even a little bite can be deadly as their saliva is loaded with toxic bacteria. In fact, Komodo dragons hunt larger animals such as deer, wild horses or water buffalo by biting them and then following them until the bacterial infection brings them down. Luckily, park rangers have big sticks to keep the monstrous lizards at bay. 🙂
Hiking options on Rinca are relatively limited. We opted for the longer circuit which leads through the forested river beds towards the oft-filmed watering hole up into the palm-studded grassy hills and back down along the mangroves returning to the ranger station. Simply walking through the forested domain of the Komodo dragon is a bit of an adrenalin kick. Every cracking branch or movement in the grass serves to stimulate some primitive lobe in your brain once used to defend yourself from monsters. It’s hard to clear your mind of bone-crushing bites and toxic bacteria as you walk along the narrow paths through forest and knee-high grasses. However, the sight of one of the scaly beasts surging through the brush or eying you from within the forest is worth the limited risk.
Many people have seen the BBC’s coverage on Komodo in the recent Life series. Much of the footage was shot at the watering hole in Rinca, a bizarre place where deer, monkeys, and buffalo mix with dragons on the prowl. As we approached, we discovered the baffling sight of a water buffalo taking a cooling dip in the water right next to a floating Komodo dragon. The buffalo was staring at the dragon as if to say, “What’s that floating in the water?”
We spent more than 45 minutes watching the bizarre scene wondering if the dragon would bite the curious buffalo, but nothing happened. Our guide explained that dragons rarely attack while in the water because the water cools the dragon’s body temperature slowing them down. He also said the dragons usually attack buffalo from behind as they fear the buffalos’ dangerous horns.
Beyond the watering hole, we moved up into the hills. Rinca is a starkly beautiful place which, in the dry season, will best be appreciated by desert lovers and those who see beauty in reds, yellows, and browns. The wild grasslands dotted with palms were straight out of a cheesy 60s dinosaur flick. (The only thing missing was Raquel Welch running by in a fur bikini.) It’s prehistoric and perfect – but rugged Komodo is even better.
Most travel agents and tour guides would have visitors believe that Rinca is THE place to track dragons. But even as we approached Komodo, I began to brush those claims aside. I immediately fell in love with the island. Schools of dolphins accompanied our boat. Wickedly jagged mountains backed a series of pristine white sand beaches. In the distance, we spotted a large herd of Timor deer wading in the sea. It was darkly magical.
We stopped, as do most tours, at Pink Beach to do a little snorkeling. We took in the unusual pink hues of the surreal beach and explored the gardens of soft coral just offshore. In a stroke of luck, the lazy park rangers were off snoozing their day away, so they didn’t come out to collect the extortionate 70,000 rupiah “snorkeling fee.” Or perhaps, they were just sick of tourists complaining about the ludicrous sum. (Komodo has a virtual menu of fees: entry, guide, camera, diving, snorkeling, taxes etc. Soon they’ll be charging you for air.)
We spent the night on the boat near mangroves full of flying foxes. We dined and later slept to a harsh symphony of shrieks and cries. Up early for breakfast, we landed at the ranger station by 6:00 AM and were the first group out for the day.
Komodo’s lush valleys are full of wildlife. Almost immediately, we spotted herds of Timor deer and several wild boar. Twenty minutes in, we found two very large dragons. (No buildup here.) It became immediately apparent why they are called Komodo dragons. For some reason, dragons grow much larger on Komodo than they do on Rinca or the other islands. The two massive beasts were impressively intimidating. One stomped out of the forest directly at us, its huge clawed feet crushing branches and lacerated the earth along the way. Thomas and I snapped away (picture below) like crazy until we realized these animals can sprint up to 18km an hour – so we jumped behind a tree. The scaly beast’s lengthy tongue shot in and out taking in its surroundings. The second dragon grunted its way over to the first where the two 21st century dinosaurs posed in the sun. Simply awesome.
Equally awesome is the birdlife on Komodo. Several birds of prey – perhaps eagles – soared above. A few meters off the path, we found the huge mound-like nest of the megapode, a strange chicken-like ground bird which spends months building its fortress of a nest. (I guess a ground bird needs a fortress-nest on Komodo.)
Tony and our guide stand atop an abandoned megapode nest
As we climbed towards the mountains, Thomas called my attention to parrot-like sounds in the trees. “Oh my god, are those cockatoos,” he asked hopefully.
“Yes,” our guide answered nonchalantly as if it had never occurred to him that cockatoos might be of interest.
In fact, it was flocks of cockatoos. Perfect, white cockatoos with pale yellow combs… everywhere. (And I thought I was coming here just for dragons.) With megapodes and cockatoos, nature was telling us that we had most definitely reached the other side of the Wallace Line. But that fact had already been confirmed underwater.
Moving up into the steep mountains of Komodo, the lush forests gave way to drier grasslands dotted with palms such as those in Rinca. The views out over the turquoise waters and the surrounding islands were mind-blowing. Along the path we found the grave of Randolph von Reding, a 79-year-old man who went missing and was presumed eaten in 1974 (a reminder that Komodo dragons do indeed eat people). We sat near the grave site with its phenomenal views out over the sea and contemplated von Reding’s demise. It’s a terrible way to go, but you can’t beat the location.
As we moved across the mountains back into the orchid-filled forests towards Loh Sebita, our rather comatose guide suddenly announced that there were exactly 1282 dragons on Komodo. When I asked how he had such an exact number, he proudly answered, “The San Diego Zoo counted them.”
Well, as a native of San Diego, California and a devoted fan of the San Diego Zoo, I’m glad to hear that those ever increasing ticket prices are actually doing some good abroad.
Both Komodo and Rinca are absolutely stunning destinations and a visit to both islands is highly recommended. There is much more to Komodo National Park than just the dragons: stunning coral, phenomenal birdlife, herds of deer wading in the sea, and panoramic views at every turn. That’s probably why Komodo was just selected one of the New 7 World Wonders – and it actually deserves that title.
Melanie, Rolf and Tony enjoy lunch
Back on the boat at the end of our hike on our way to snorkel with the mantas at Makkasar Reef, I asked our boat captain why he thought everyone suggested Rinca as the preferred dragon viewing location – especially since dragons grow larger on Komodo. Hilariously, he admitted that the strong currents on the way to Loh Liang eat up gasoline and that boat captains prefer to go to Rinca to save on gas costs. Well, there you go.
More Info on Visiting Komodo (And Warning)
Tours out of nearby Labuanbajo, Flores are really the most economical option for visiting Komodo National Park. Many backpackers also visit on inexpensive budget boat trips from Lombok to Labuanbajo. Most tours stick to shorter hikes at both Rinca and Komodo. If you want to do longer hikes, you must chose your tour carefully. Tours may promise longer hikes and then break their promises once at Komodo claiming that unexpected time restraints make the longer hikes impossible.
You can also do as we did and charter your own boat with the specific condition that longer hikes be part of the trip. If you want to do the hike from Loh Liang to Loh Sebita, make it clear that the pickup at Loh Sebita is included in the price. You can easily combine a pickup from Loh Sebita with snorkeling with the mantas at Makkassar Reef, which is very close to Loh Sebita. Don’t let captains convince you that a pickup at Loh Sebita and snorkeling with the mantas should dramatically increase the cost of the trip – it shouldn’t.
We went to the national park office in Labuanbajo to ask about other options for visiting Komodo National Park including alternative hikes and staying on the islands. The park office is completely useless and seemed baffled that we should expect any information from them at all. Most of the staff appear to be sitting around reading newspapers or taking a nap.
Once on Rinca and Komodo, we were told that there is accommodation for visitors (prices seemed to change by the minute), but hiking options in the park are VERY limited.
On Rinca, you can do a one-hour circuit, a two-hour circuit, or a four-hour hike to see wild horses (you are not likely to see more dragons on the four-hour hike). Our guide on Rinca was nice and offered information on the dragons, although he did not seem to have good tracking skills. In fact, he walked within a few feet of two dragons without even noticing them.
On Komodo, you can arrange several shorter hikes around the area near the ranger station, a five-hour hike up a mountain, or the four-hour hike to Loh Sebita. If you have a specific plan, you might be able to hire a guide to do that, but don’t come here expecting suggestions and good advice from the staff. Our guide was very unprofessional on Komodo. He seemed most focused on getting from A to B as fast as possible. Other travelers report similar experiences. Insist on going slowly and taking your time with wildlife. Ask the guide if he knows the location of any dragons and insist on visiting them. Our ridiculous guide actually began the hike by asking us if we had enough water for the trip. Two hours into the hike, he asked to drink our water because he “had not had enough time to get some” before we left. Honestly, don’t they have any requirements to be a guide?
Unbelievably, fortnightly P & O Cruises are now stopping directly at Komodo National Park. If you show up on the wrong day, you’ll have to share the dragons with 1200 of your closest friends. Seriously, 1200 passengers being dumped on a national park at the same time?! Doesn’t anyone have a brain anymore?